Acting the gift: Serious in what I do but not necessarily in the way I do it…

Gregor Cameron, Aberystwyth University |

Inspired by Patrick Troughton’s call: “I am an Actor. My job is to appear to be someone else. But I cannot actually be someone else…. so, if I can only be myself, how do I create and present a character whom an audience accepts as fully rounded, but who is not me?” Patrick Troughton (Troughton, 2012:27)

Patrick Troughton as the Doctor.

Patrick Troughton as the Doctor.

I want to explore what being an actor means, using the actors who have played the Doctor as my case studies. So I have been thinking quite a bit, lately, about gifts. They enter your life in a number of different ways. They can be both concrete and abstract. And they can underpin all the decisions you make in your life. And finally they may reinforce the momentum of your life or in fact disrupt it to the extent that you are forced to reinvigorate it.

Lewis Hyde depicts talent as a gift: “We can not buy it; we can not acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us” (Hyde, 2008:421). Hyde describes how we are able to hone our talents, yet they are somehow beyond our capacity to conjure out of nothing. In this way, Troughton is also calling for a definition of something which he recognises as part of who he is as an actor but which he seems less confident of his ability to control it. Hyde, on the other hand, suggests that having received the gift, it is possible to develop and hone it with practice.

Metaphorically, acting might be compared to giving a gift to a loved one. We  spend a lot of time considering what to buy, and searching for just the right thing, looking in shop after shop or swiping website after website until that special object seems to scream out to be owned by our loving friend. We then search out that card which speaks of what is in our hearts, and wrap the gift in a delicate paper so that, even thus obscured, the care and meaning will not, cannot, escape the recipient. And, after this labour, all that remains is to give the gift to the person whom we have embodied it for. And therein lies the rub. For in passing it over, completing its action, we lose our agency over it. We cannot ascertain the reaction it will engender. Though in some circumstances we may see their face light up in delight, there are also times, such as at a wedding or in a culture where the gift is opened in private, where the reaction to our labour is taken remotely.

So it is with acting. The actor’s agency is all in the preparation, and similarly, reception is also out of our hands. The performance itself feels like the act of giving something away. Consider for instance, an actor, having identified that they have a gift for acting, practicing it to the point of being cast as the Doctor. In the sixties this would have been supplemented by a period of rehearsal before a Doctor Who story was committed to tape, as opposed to the way the role has been played recently, within a single-camera location shoot, or in fact as it is presently, in the domain of the digital. The actor prepares himself, becomes familiar with the story arc (or as much of it as the showrunner might reveal) and the lines, and then delivers his performance into the camera. This giving away, as it is for the stage actor, is a gift to the audience, albeit mediated through writer, camera, editor and director.

The performance of the Doctor has been presented on video, film, digitally, audio, onstage and through both graphic novel and in literature. So what is it about this character that has fascinated several generations of audiences? This performance, somewhat fractured perhaps, can be pitched as a single continuous character arc and each actor must pick up not only their own interpretation but in some way also integrate that which has gone before. This makes it very different from the likes of James Bond or Ken Barlow. Bond has established some continuity but, by and large, the story resets with each recasting. On the other hand William Roache’s performance of Barlow in the continuing soap Coronation Street is consistent with the character and the actor growing older together.

Doctor Who in performance, on the other hand, as Patrick Troughton suggests, presents some problems, Firstly, he’s not human. He is the personification of the other, an alien. I have written elsewhere how to approach the performance of the Doctor as continuing a tradition that includes Chaplin, Mr. Punch, Arlecchino from the Commedia dell’arte, all the way back to the trickster character from mythology. Of course I was referencing the work of Tulloch and Alvarado (1983) who cite writer Christopher Bailey connecting the Doctor with the trickster of Myth. Piers Britton (2011) identifies early on in his book that the Doctor exhibits the trickster’s traits, particularly focusing on “The Dandy and the Clown” (Britton 2011:92) to explore the masquerade and theatricality of the Doctor, including the Harlequinade motif (Britton, 2011:159).

David Rafer, in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space (2007), explores the Doctor’s mythic identity. Rafer describes the character as being clearly in contrast to Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero, and more in line with a multimodal shape, assuming “various archetypes from scientist-hero, Trickster, wanderer, wise old man and young fool” [suggesting he] “fights for order but exists in chaos” (Rafer, 2007:134). The Doctor is a performance that must include the “boy who never grows up” (Charles, 2007:119), the “ageless god” (Doctor Who, ‘The Angels take Manhattan’, 2012), a clown somewhere between Chaplin and Harpo Marx, but with the sophistication of a Jason King from Department S (Britton, 2011:95). Finally, we must be convinced that he can be the oncoming storm which will transform into the War Doctor (Doctor Who, ‘Day of the Doctor’ 2013).

Furthermore, Alec Charles has written an article that suggests that the Doctor, House M.D. and Sherlock are all characters that can be seen as having aspects of the clown, the dandy and the trickster. Charles uses the term flâneur as a way of modernising the characterisation of the slacker/dandy who is possessed of a conjunction of laziness, restlessness and genius. However, he also seeks to use the Jungian image of the trickster to position these performances: “Jung emphasizes that the redemptive power of the trickster lies in that figure’s ability to transform ‘the meaningless into the meaningful’” (Charles, 2013:94).

Matt Smith as the Doctor.

Matt Smith as the Doctor. Image credit BBC.

What I want to suggest is that to an actor there is a sophisticated palette of choices from which to enrich the performance of the Doctor. The actor is also surrounded by any number of environmental constraints in performance – set, sound, lights, text and the imaginary likely to outweigh the real on the stage, as well as camera, editing, special and digital effects which often mix the concrete with the imaginary on the set. These features of the ecology of the television industry also contribute a significant amount to the palette of the actor even as they constrain it. BBC television has continued a role as a public service broadcaster, which developed first as radio, thus early on audio was often privileged over the visual. This debt may be manifest in the success Big Finish has had with their audio plays. This is now being challenged, of course, as the cinema and the home experience of the media become more closely related. The actor’s performance is becoming similarly nuanced and as Doctor Who has entered this new tele-cinematic era, the actors playing the Doctor have increasingly also had to develop a relationship with a stardom that has leaped outside of the established fandom, and this might be traced through the charity and appearance work they have done which creates a sort of hybrid performance of the actor’s self and the role. This can be seen particularly with Tennant/Doctor and Smith/Doctor, for example at the 2010 BBC Proms[i]. This development can be traced over fifty years in the performance of the Doctor. Assessing all of these changing conditions I hope to make some sense of the actor’s ability to appropriate the conditions of performance to deliver his gift to his audience.

Thus we return to ability, to talent, and the gift. Lewis Hyde recognises the relationship within the gift of creativity. His examination of the Trickster is centered on the way in which the trickster of mythology has always been implicated in gift-giving to mankind, whether that is the Promethean gift of fire or the Pandorican gift of trouble and evil. Hyde recognises that creativity is infused with this double-edged blade, which cuts both ways, both for good and ill. In studying actors and their performance of the Doctor, I want to acknowledge this interaction with misrule, something that arises both from the character himself but also from the way in which acting itself is viewed.

I am interested in the complexity of bringing such a role to life, maintaining the needs of the industry and of the audience in such a way that these actors have navigated this character’s story from family show to flagship brand for the BBC. Indeed, as the young fan Peter Capaldi noted after watching Jon Pertwee regenerate into Tom Baker in the 1970s: “There is an infinite number of further faces and natures to choose from.” In this sense the Doctor, far from being a mad man in a box, can actually be the gift that keeps on giving.


Doctor Punch

The Doctor Punch Show prop at the Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff. Image credit Gregor Cameron.



BRITTON, Piers. D. 2011. Tardisbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who. I. B. Tauris.

CAMERON, Gregor. 2012.The role of misrule in the practice of performance. A thesis submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Theatre. Unpublished but available,

CAPALDI, Peter. 1974 Letter headed “Eternal Dr Who” BBC Publications, Warlow & Son Ltd London. Letter shared from Radio Times dated 11 July, p. 56.

CHARLES, Alec. 2013. ‘Three characters in search of an archetype: Aspects of the trickster and the flâneur in the characterizations of Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House and Doctor Who’, Journal of Popular Television, 1: 1, pp. 83 -102.

HYDE, Lewis. 2008. Trickster Makes This World. Canongate Books Ltd., Print.

RAFER, David. 2007.  ‘Mythic identity in Doctor Who’. In Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who. David Butler. (Editor) Manchester University Press.

TROUGHTON, Michael. 2012. Patrick Troughton A Biography, Hirst Publishing.

TULLOCH, John & Alvarado, M. 1984. Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. St Martins Press.



Gregor Cameron is an actor who has been working professionally for about twenty years. Highlights for him, onstage, include David Geary’s The Farm and Sweeney Todd as Judge Turpin, on TV and film, Balius in Xena: Warrior Princess and Mark Lundy in The Investigator. In recent years he has returned to study, including leaving his native New Zealand to study towards his Doctorate at Aberystwyth University in Wales. His PhD is titled (re) Performing Doctor Who: Tracing Theatre Technique through Television Time.

One thought on “Acting the gift: Serious in what I do but not necessarily in the way I do it…

  1. Awesome work. Really interesting to think of The Doctor in that lineage of trickster roles, particularly Arlecchino. & That Patrick Troughton quote you opened with is amazing. I find that edge-of-artifice in performance hypnotic. You’re watching a performance and you’re watching a person giving that performance, there’s something thrilling about that precipice between the two. Thanks for a really interesting read.

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